Work As UX
Trying to understand The Great Resignation? Start by taking a look at your business mission.
More than 15 million US workers have quit their jobs since April 2021. And that number is growing. As is the anxiety within corporate offices where talent execs are trying to make sense of the trend.
Is is because of Covid? Is it because people have gotten a taste of remote work? Is it a rising sense of dissatisfaction with one’s job? Is it a generational issue?
Yes to all of the above.
But if I have to pick one factor as the most impactful, I choose the rising sense of dissatisfaction.
In an excellent article by McKinsey, the core problem is that work has become transactional. This is a symptom that has permeated several consumer categories — such as banking and healthcare — and there is an underlying reason: historically low institutional trust.
The internet ushered in an Age of Transparency where the entire world will know anything within twenty minutes. For more than two decades, we’ve seen the corruption and disingenuousness of public figures and companies fill our screens and airwaves. The inevitable response, as any psychologist will tell you, is to lower your expectations as a compensation device to protect your heart and avoid despair.
The same is true with work.
Fifty years of Shareholder Capitalism, with its profit-driven mindset of wealth extraction has taken its toll on the American worker (something I’ve already written about). Jobs that define your value by sales or growth metrics devalue your status as a human being. It makes you a commodity. And kills your soul.
Millennials sense this acutely, which is why they are the generation pushing back, using the same technology that automates and commoditizes work and wielding it like the great equalizer:
• firing off a tweet that topples a government, or exposes a politician
• disrupting entire industries with novel supply chains
• creating a new economic exchange with its own crypto currency
Technology has not only changed our capabilities and behavior, it’s changed our expectations.
The Amazon Effect has cultivated a paradoxical demand for automated efficiency coupled with increased expectation for personalized customer service. Hi tech, hi touch. And with every ecommerce brand or smartphone app that raises the bar on service, expectations rise with it. This means the UX on any app sets the new standard in consumer expectation. This dynamic runs across industries and categories because the consumer’s world is not industry-specific. The experience of a good, one-click UI instantly makes your banking or healthcare experience intolerable.
Everything is a User Experience, including work.
This is because everything is a User Experience, including work. And when that UX doesn’t hold up to the experiences we have in other areas of our life, it loses value. Precipitously.
In their excellent report, McKinsey warns: “By not understanding what their employees are running from, and what they might gravitate to, company leaders are putting their very businesses at risk.”
We’re talking about something bigger and deeper than remote work flexibility. We’re talking about a pervasive dissatisfaction with work that is not truly fulfilling — a feeling that’s been coalescing for years and is now becoming conscious to an entire generation. Especially when you discover that the dissatisfied feeling you thought was yours alone is shared by a large number of your peers.
According to NY Times columnist Paul Krugman, “there may be a ‘quits multiplier’ in which the decision of some workers to quit ends up inducing other workers to follow suit.”
In other words, a trend. But, unlike many trends, this is evolutional — a permanent shift in the nature of work.
Okay, at this point you’re probably muttering: “Quit your whining. That’s why it’s called work!” Which means one of two things: you’re not listening to your soul or you’ve lowered your expectation of what work can be.
An Identity Crisis
The pandemic imposed remote work on the American workforce, who have already been steadily migrating to self-employment for well over a decade. And with this sabbatical from the office, WFH has morphed into WTF. According to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, “the pandemic may have downgraded work as the centerpiece of their identity.”
This is happening for one simple reason: most jobs have little or no meaning other than a paycheck.
Is it worth it?
At risk of appearing like I’m veering off on a tangent, I need to turn to the concept of value. Every business is built on a value proposition. Every employee is compensated on the value she brings to the venture. Every customer engagement or consumer purchase is based on value.
In fact, all of marketing can be understood as a value index, which is something humans innately calculate (sometimes over months and sometimes in a nansecond) before clicking or buying.
Somewhere between Orville Comer’s Marketing 101 class at the University of Dayton and today, this simple formula seems to have been untaught or forgotten by almost everyone in the business.
For our purposes, I want to point out how WFH lowers the Perceived Effort and therefore increases the Value of a job. But if I have to commute to an office — which means getting up earlier, shaving, showering, sitting on a train or in traffic, then in a cubicle or meeting after meeting, then schlepping back home after dark to remember what my children look like — the denominator skyrockets. And the index plummets.
Now do you see the problem?
And the solution is not WFH. The solution is the numerator — what’s the Perceived Benefit? A paycheck?
That’s important. But it’s not enough. At least to Millennials.
Which brings me full circle back to the question we ask every client we work with:
Can you state the goal of your company without using numbers or dollar signs?
Many people struggle with this. Because when you take metrics off the table, they strain to come up with a compelling narrative. And if a company’s leadership is struggling with their raison d’etre, you can bet its employees are struggling too. (Stephen Covey build a cottage industry on this alarming state of affairs.)
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Corporate Purpose the way it’s often manifest in companies as some type of social cause effort. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I’m talking about something more existential. Why do you exist? Why do you matter?
If the answer is to create shareholder value, you’re a dinosaur. That mindset is what got us here. At risk of repeating myself, profit is the fruit of a successful company, not its purpose.
The good news is you can solve your marketing and your talent challenges at the same time!
1. Understand the societal context in which you exist. Today. Change is constant and you need to perpetually focus on your relevance in people’s lives. Especially when anthropological shifts are happening (eg: climate change, online education, remote work).
2. Understand how people are wired. This never changes. Which means you need to connect at a deeper level than price or convenience if you want to really matter. You need to share the same values or beliefs. This is emotional turf. Not rational.
When you achieve clarity on these two issues, your mission, your product, your employees and their work has meaning.
Which is compelling in a world that’s looking for it.